A grand design to power our future

It’s finally accepted that the big design decision facing energy modernisation is not whether to digitalise but how to do it.

The way I see it, our next urgent challenge is learning how to architect our ambition. If you’ve ever watched Grand Designs, you’ll appreciate how clarity of vision is pivotal to a good design outcome.

When it comes to architecting our energy system – one of the world’s biggest machines – we desperately need a premeditated and professionalised approach, a blueprint for gaining control, setting direction and delivering our grand design.

British engineering is back in fashion and this time it’s going digital

Truly brilliant human creations are only made possible when people share a common goal and collaborate with widespread participation.

I see nuggets of this in my day job, but I see it everywhere else too, such as when people construct monumental buildings, in the way incredible ballet productions are brought to life, and subtly, such as how democratised media step-by-step is connecting together the people society used to overlook – strength in numbers.

Until recently, I worked at Ofgem. The opportunity for civil service is a privileged position. My fortune was the opportunity to establish the Energy Data Taskforce (EDTF), create the government’s Modernising Energy Data programme and author the energy sector’s regulatory standards on data and digitalisation. The sector’s willingness and efficaciousness for digitalising really impressed me, but as a good regulator, I always remained deadpan.

Agreeing to a common vision to digitalise the energy system was a brave first step for the sector – their commitment will uproot the world these companies have known for a very long time.

Well, the first step on a journey is always followed by a second.

Architecture is to engineering what a constitution is to politics

Our next step is to engineer how we will accomplish our goal. Complex engineering begins as an architectural challenge. So, working for the Energy Digitalisation Taskforce (EDiT), I have authored an approach for how to ‘design how to design’ our digitalised energy system.

My objective has been to enable all people to get stuck in and contribute to meeting their own and our shared needs. By that I mean staying warm, travelling to meet the people we love and know, to visit the places we adore and to electrify our lives.

We all want to contribute to our shared grand design for life. The energy system architectural solution I am proposing is designed to be egalitarian and practical, intended to reflect modern values as well as able to get the job done quickly.

As we move into the detailed engineering, we need to first agree on how to agree on solutions to each of the thousands of system challenges, we need an architectural ‘constitution’ for the build of the digital energy system.

We never stopped central planning – we just outsourced it

Our 1980s liberalisation experiment fragmented governance of the energy system, mainly in a good way. However, underneath our evolved institutional design continues to remain a single national system. Unlike our original nationalised governing method, today each component of the system is run by a different organisation.

But just like the original governing method, today’s organisations each hold their roles only as a result of legislation/regulation – free markets can’t come to play because the capital costs for doing this continue to outweigh the benefits of competition. The energy system is and always has been centrally planned, we just outsourced who plans each component.

Life is full of trade-offs. One thing we lost when we liberalised our energy services is architectural oversight of the whole system engineering, today, there is nobody who makes sure all the components of the system fit together. That is okay…until you want to change the system design.

Under nationalisation, we benefitted from the oversight of the eminent architect, Lord Holford, who sat on the Central Electricity Generating Board, he guided the engineering of the old grand design. We need a modern way of gaining that architectural guidance. This time it won’t be one person.

In times of crisis, we only have each other

To digitalise, we’re going to need the whole federated and yet centrally planned system to change and to do so in a coordinated way, however, our brand of liberalised governance has left nobody able to coordinate the engineering.

We need to put open governance and transparent information in place to allow everyone to design the changes our sector needs. Without clarity of vision, it is unrealistic to believe we will engineer our grand design to power our future, at least not at a cost we can swallow.